It’s a tall order, creating a compelling, sexy, gripping chess drama. It’s not an undertaking for the weak of heart, or for the weak of script. You might even, if you were looking for a punchy title tie-in, call it a gambit.
Netflix has made its mark by producing an outlandish amount of original content. This strategy gives creators room to make series that might otherwise not see the light of day, but sometimes it also results in shows that miss the mark. The Queen’s Gambit, a miniseries made up of seven hourish-long episodes that don’t shy away from showing a lot of chess, could easily have been one of those misses.
But by god, The Queen’s Gambit actually manages to pull it off!
Based apparently very faithfully on the 1983 novel of the same name by Walter Tevis, the show follows the life of chess prodigy Beth Harmon (a fantastic Anya Taylor-Joy). Orphaned at nine, Beth learns the game from her orphanage’s janitor (Bill Camp). She shows an almost preternatural ability and uses her gift to pull herself up from nothing and into the exciting, alluring world of 1960s professional chess.
The Queen’s Gambit is pure fiction. Beth Harmon never existed, and maybe chess tournaments have never been quite as thrilling as it makes them out. But it plays like a biography, enough so that it’s easy to expect the real Beth, now in her seventies, to make a knowing cameo appearance. That’s because it doesn’t hit the standard beats of the fictionalized coming of age story, although it flirts with them. Instead, it takes you on a captivating but believable journey from Beth’s childhood to early adulthood as she rises through the ranks and defies expectations.
One area that’s less believable is how little Beth has to struggle as a woman. The story of a teenage girl in the ’60s entering what was (and still is) very much a male-dominated game, the show would have every right to concentrate on matters of gender and the constraints of the time. And it doesn’t do away with them entirely. There’s a very definite “something” in the air every time Beth enters a room of confident men and proceeds to mop the floor with them. But it’s far from the main focus, and frankly, that’s something of a relief. Maybe it’s a bit of a fantasy, but it’s a nice one, in which society isn’t Beth’s de facto nemesis.
It’s also something of a tactical decision, as it clears the path for Beth’s real nemesis: herself.
Struggling with substance abuse from a devastatingly young age, unaccustomed to failure, and with a single-minded interest in the game that could easily be called obsession, Beth is a fascinating character, portrayed by Taylor-Joy with a beautiful mix of laser focus and youthful exuberance. You find yourself cheering for her, even as every win pushes her a little closer to falling apart.
And you do cheer along with the chess matches, even if you don’t know the first thing about the game (I, for one, can’t win a game). The show throws out theory and vocabulary like it’s candy — the title teaches you one opening move for free — but that’s almost beside the point. It’s a story about chess that happens to be about chess. It’s not that much of a stretch to imagine the exact same show in which Beth is the world’s best at tennis. Or maybe topiary sculpting.
That is to say, it’s a universal story in all the best ways. A bildungsroman about a genius that celebrates its particular field instead of gatekeeps. That fosters excitement, rather than blind you with complications. Of course, it doesn’t shy away from the chess element. It shows an incredible amount of onscreen playing. And when the characters aren’t playing chess, they’re often talking about it. But they pump so much life and interest into it, and Beth’s passion for it is so tangible, that it’s difficult not to get swept up in it all.
You care about Beth and want to be a part of her world, so you find yourself, possibly in spite of yourself, caring about chess.
The Queen’s Gambit makes the world of chess seem, god forbid, glamorous.
It also tells a heck of a story of rarely-checked genius seen through a remarkably human lens. It is, all things considered, one of the best results of Netflix’s wide-cast content net in a while.
The Queen’s Gambit premieres on Netflix on October 23rd.